AJ Planning Column

The AJ asked me to write a piece for the 6th Dec issue around UK Planning – This is the full article as printed:

At present, the British planning system is predicated against any development that doesn’t conform to a ubiquitous homogeneity and sit in a banal middle ground. It is a system that is fundamentally flawed and wastes vast amounts of time, money and resources writing misconceived and half baked design guides that discriminate against anything that doesn’t fit in to an unbelievably narrow pigeonhole – a pigeonhole with ‘been done before and didn’t upset anyone’ as it’s title. How on earth do we go from here to a system that should allow architects to do what they are trained to do – imagine the future?

Architects are locked in a seemingly never-ending battle with local authorities over design – an area, it should be remembered, where planners have no training. It is easy to imagine a system where planners do what they’re trained to do – plan – and leave the rest up for grabs for architects and individuals to act as they see fit.

In housing, undoubtedly the only thing that really matters is the big picture – the infrastructure, the streets, the relationships of buildings to one another, the open spaces, the mix, density and use, and local demand. I’ve no doubt this should be highly controlled – but everything else should be determined by architects, developers and self builders.

A new kind of local character could evolve from this – a diverse, dynamic local character that genuinely reflects place and context in an immediate way. Local character as defined by local authority typically means ‘as it was historically’ rather than ‘as it could be now’. Local character only ever truly evolved through an architecture of circumstance – an architecture where individuals used materials, skills, techniques as appropriate for them  – and it is this, a new architecture of circumstance that I am arguing for – an architecture where true local character and individual expression has a place.

For this to happen, planning guidance needs to change and planners need to stop meddling and micromanaging the areas outside their expertise. Almrere is an extraordinary example of this – an example of how planners can get it right. Almere, of course, is a planned city in Holland – a dense city with inherent flexibility at its core, and importantly, a city with a straight forward planning process for the easy bit – the buildings. Each plot comes with a ‘passport’, which is effectively a permit to build, and outlines the key (and important) restrictions – the gaps between houses, the relationship to the street, overall maximum height etc – and everything else is unrestricted. Home builders and architects are free to decide for themselves what the building can look like.

It’s mind boggling to imagine how much time and money we’d save in the UK if we adopted this type of system, not just for new towns, but also for infill sites in any city irrespective of its conservation area or world heritage status.  For example, each vacant site should be submitted for an outline consent specifying mix, density and use and the entire next step (that of detailed planning) omitted, and architects trusted to design buildings with no petty micromanaging from mealy mouthed planners. A new – and true – vernacular would begin to emerge over time, an exciting and diverse one where individual expression was valued and unregulated.

The irony, of course, is that most of the most interesting urban areas of the United Kingdom developed in this way up until the introduction of the planning system 70 years ago – and yet, under the current system, it is impossible to imagine that any comparable new build development could exist.

Piers Taylor 2012

Image of Almere, Holland above.

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One Comment

  1. Posted December 10, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Well, as Waugh put it in ‘Scoop’, “Up to a point Lord Copper”. If you are talking about gifted, creative architects who manage to combine a sensitivity for built context with a willingness to take risks and leave an undoubted modern mark, fine. But there aren’t enough of them around. Indeed, as Greg Clark put it in the Introduction to the NPPF “Our standards of design can be so much higher. We are a nation renowned worldwide for creative excellence, yet, at home, confidence in development itself has been eroded by the too frequent experience of mediocrity.”

    There have been instances in the recent past, to my immense frustration, where planners have interfered unnecessarily in design matters where they have, as you say, no training or expertise. In more ‘laissez-faire’ boroughs like Wandsworth, local communities are being landed with overweening monstrosities because the planners there are too inclined to be pro-development, at almost any cost. Brick bunkers are being proposed -and recommended for approval- in Georgian and Victorian residential village centres and towering skyscrapers in conservation areas predominantly of three and four storeys.

    Speaking personally, even as a conservationist- perhaps that should be ‘particularly as a conservationist’ I am concerned that our architectural legacy for future generations is at best timid and insipid, lacking courage and creativity and at worst a blight on our historic environment. Reiss, in his 1918 ‘The Home I Want’ remarked that ‘a few ugly houses may disfigure whole streets and districts’. Where planners without expertise interfere in design matters, that is what we will get. And the wide variance with which planning departments apply planning principles and local design codes not only from borough to borough, but within planning departments themselves, is enough to have the staunchest liberal reaching for the smelling salts.

    In principle your ‘permit’ system would have several advantages but there are still too many architects out there who seem to be quite happy with the mediocrity of which Mr Clark spoke and too few with the courage and intelligence which would realise your vision of creatively progressive and yet contextually appropriate local character. But that’s just my experience. Possibly your readers may feel differently. Bring on the debate!

    previously a member of Wandsworth’s CAAC 2009-2011
    historic environment & planning consultants

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